Bob at Boys Town; Preface: Born to Run

June 24, 2012


In the pristine speaker’s theater of Boys Town’s sprawling Omaha campus, forty teenagers sat in silence, their attention alternating between Nebraska’s 1988 Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Robert Kerrey, and the woman nearby who, with manual eloquence, interpreted his message.

“In 1969, I went to Vietnam as a platoon officer for the U.S. Navy. Three months later in a combat operation, I was wounded rather seriously. I was flown first to Japan and then to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. My parents, who were in Lincoln at the time, were flown in to be with me. They arrived right after I was taken out of the operating room. I had a right leg, some of which was traumatically amputated in the field, and some of which was removed during that surgery. When I woke up, my mother and father were sitting against a wall. I asked my mother to come by the bed and answer the question that I had. I wanted her to tell me how much they removed in the operating room. And she looked upon me and said, ‘There’s a lot left, Bob.'”

At the end of Kerrey’s address, his hearing-impaired audience, with arms outstretched, repeatedly fluttered their hands from above their heads to their waists; silent thunderous applause.

Four months later, Bob Kerrey entered Omaha’s historic Peony Park ballroom, this time greeted by a throng of several thousand ecstatic supporters. Returns showed the forty-six-year-old divorced politician far in front of his challenger. He stood before his fellow Cornhuskers that election night poised to deliver a victory speech. Flanked by his two children, his brothers and sisters, their spouses, and his Navy SEAL buddies, Kerrey surveyed the cheering masses and decided to fulfill a promise. He turned to his 13-year-old son, Ben, and said, “I’m going to do it.” Ben grimaced through his braces and pleaded, “Dad, don’t” Ignoring his son’s entreaty, Kerrey suddenly leaned into the microphone, shifted the weight from his right leg and its prothesis, and calmly started singing a cappella:

 When I was a young man I carried  a pack and I lived the free life of a rover

From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback, well I waltzed my Matilda all over

Then in 1915, the country said, “Son, it’s time you stopped roving, there’s work to be done.”

So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun and sent me away to the war

For ten minutes, Kerrey struggled through an off-pitch rendition of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” the tale of a young Australian who loses both legs in the WWI Battle of Gallipoli written by contemporary songwriter Eric Bogle. Most in the crowd where unfamiliar with Bogle’s anti-war masterpiece, but they knew the history of their newly-elected Senator. It took only a few lines to understand that the ballad eerily mirrored Kerrey’s odyssey in Vietnam – even to the point of his homecoming.

Then they gathered the sick and the crippled and maimed

And sent us back home to Australia

The armless, the legless, the blind and insane

The brave wounded heroes of Suvla

And the band played “Waltzing Matilda” 

As they carried us down the gangway

But nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared

Then they turned their faces away

Bob Kerrey brought America’s unfinished war home to Nebraskans that November night – an occasion traditionally reserved for hoopla and forgettable political rhetoric. But he would have none of that. Not the blue-eyed Bethany boy who had faced death at twenty-six, and had thereafter pushed life to the limit. Not the complex-restaurateur-turned-politician, the rising political star whose two-decade journey since his enlistment in the Navy SEALS encompassed such passages as war hero and outspoken antiwar activist; small-town pharmacist and millionaire businessman; divorced father and celebrity-dating bachelor; history teacher and wise-cracking, popular Governor. And finally, U.S. Senator.

Vietnam had steered the course of Kerrey’s adult life, and that election night, in singing “Waltzing Matilda,” Kerrey honored the memory of the terrible war responsible for his charmed political destiny.

Outsiders might have been surprised by Kerrey’s unorthodox victory speech (“We’ll waltz tonight and work tomorrow”), but Nebraskans knew that Kerrey was an example of Cornhusker iconoclasm, and they had come to expect the unexpected from him.

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